'Pink Viagra' Boon or Bust for Equal Rights? - Pacific Standard

'Pink Viagra' Boon or Bust for Equal Rights?

While pharmaceutical companies battle to end desire discrepancy, some feminists fear the medicalization of not being in the mood.
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Despite Hillary Clinton’s near win in the Democratic presidential primary, decades of anti-discrimination laws and wagonloads of proof that women can do anything men can, sexual equality is a hard sell to the less-fair sex.

This collective stance is based on reason: A new study by Ireland’s Economic and Social Research Institute says women do a month more of housework per year than men. For fellows, what’s not to like about that?

Notwithstanding such logic, Michael Snabes, vice president for clinical development at the Illinois biotech firm BioSante, is on a mission to convince men that equal rights for women, at least when it comes to libido-enhancing drugs, truly is in men’s best interest.

“When there’s a desire discrepancy in a relationship, it can impact relationships, and so I don’t think that story is laid out very clearly yet,” said Snabes, whose firm is seeking approval for a drug-industry holy grail that’s been popularly known as “pink Viagra” ever since Pfizer came out with its little blue erection pills in 1998. Many companies have tried and failed to come out with a women’s version. BioSante is betting a fortune on a massive safety trial announced last week in San Francisco.

BioSante’s product is a micro-dosing testosterone gel treatment that Snabes says can stimulate sexual desire in postmenopausal women. But while Viagra was approved a decade ago and testosterone treatments have been approved for men as an anti-sexual-dysfunction medication, Snabes is only now seeking to test it on as many as 3,100 women between the ages of 50 and 80 who suffer from hypoactive sexual desire disorder (HSDD), or what male comics have called “a headache.”

So far he’s been faced with skepticism from regulators and, perhaps even more dauntingly, from feminists themselves. Neither group sees any emergency in the lack of a women’s sex-drive enhancer. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is requiring extensive safety testing to make sure the tiny hormone doses don’t increase risk of heart attack, stroke or breast cancer, and feminists are telling drug developers to stop bothering them about their supposed lack of libido.

That Snabes is facing such a stiff challenge for his LibiGel may actually be evidence of sexual favoritism, he suggests. In 2004, the FDA rejected Intrinsa, Procter & Gamble’s sex-drive-boosting low-dose testosterone patch, citing the theoretical safety problems, despite no direct evidence of health risks. However, the federal drug-regulating agency swiftly approved testosterone-based libido treatments for men — at doses 10 times higher — on top of the shelf full of already-approved Viagra-like treatments for men.

Intrinsa is available in several European markets, but the marketing so far focuses on women in “surgical menopause” after their ovaries have been removed.

In the United States, BioSante is taking up where Procter & Gamble left off while adopting an equal-rights twist.

“Whereas the medicine was approved rather handily, the FDA asked for a very, very big study. In that sense, there was an uneven playing field. Who knows whether it was political or what?” Snabes said.

Is sexism at play?

“I don’t have any evidence of that. But it seems that way. Why did Viagra get approved straight away, but to get testosterone treated for women it takes a five-year research study?” he asked.

What’s more, Snabes said, skeptics are wrong to think that women’s aphrodisiacs wouldn’t fill a pressing societal medical need.

“The world needs to understand this in terms of an education. The Procter & Gamble medicine — and the BioSante medicine — isn’t just about sex,” he added. “It’s about relationships. When there’s a desire discrepancy in a relationship, it can impact that relationship. And I don’t think that story is laid out very clearly yet.”

According to some members of the women’s rights movement with which Snabes rhetorically affiliates himself, he and other sex-pill pushers peddling tales of woe about “desire discrepancy” as a very serious problem just don’t get it.

A women’s sex pill would represent the “medicalization” of women’s sexuality and give men yet another excuse to pressure their wives to have sex. Despite the lack of any FDA-approved women’s aphrodisiac on the market, there’s already an extensive list of feminist literature on the subject, written by psychologists, public health advocates and other academics.

The problem, say such critics as Leonore Tiefer, a psychotherapist at New York University, is in the way such a drug is sure to be marketed.

The minute a women’s aphrodisiac is approved, a female Bob Dole will begin appearing on television declaring that women not interested in sex suffer a curable medical condition, and sex-starved husbands and boyfriends will begin presenting unwanted Valentine’s Day packages containing packets of testosterone gel.

Unfortunately for these critics, BioSante’s upcoming study of its treatment for so-called HSDD already seems headed in that direction.

“If you compare therapy alone, versus medicine alone, medicine plus therapy almost always works better. If you had this little bit of testosterone, that might be the right combination,” Snabes said. “If the doctor doesn’t see any reason not to give the woman a treatment, that might be the way to go. I see it out of the corner of my eye that relationships will be better. But I don’t want to be quoted on that.”

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